Crossing the Chasm

Thomas at Mile Zero recently wrote a piece called The Console Model is a Regressive Tax on Creativity. I think Thomas is wrong. Here’s my reply.

Thomas,

Your attempt at a conceptual leap from “There exist platforms that limit the amount of hacking that can be done” to “Those limitations are a barrier to entry for minorities” rivals Evel Knievel’s storied jump over the Snake River Canyon, and ultimately it is no more successful.

First off, encoded in your article are the following assumptions:

…that coding or “hacking” is the most meaningful way to interact with technology.

…that “running homebrew code” is a valuable form of experimentation for a statistically significant number of people.

…that making a platform more amenable to end-user coding is cost-free (and here I’m using “cost” not in the monetary sense, but in the sense of “cost to the end user in terms of the usefulness of the platform”).

All three of these assumptions are not simply incorrect, but woefully so. To borrow the words of Wolfgang Pauli, “This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.”

Regarding the first assumption: while those of us in the technology sector like to romanticize our early experiences with our various Apple IIs, TRS-80s, and other hackable platforms, the fact is that the skills we learned from doing that work had a narrow effect: they made us marginally more likely to enter into one particular career track in the tech industry. There are thousands of other equally valid, fulfilling, and financially rewarding career tracks in the tech industry that don’t involve the specific aspects of software development you are rooting for. Put another way, the assumption that hacking is an intrinsic good in and of itself seems to me morally equivalent to bemoaning the fact that most people who buy modern cars aren’t using them to brush up on their auto mechanic skills.

Regarding your second assumption: to the extent that one decides to make the (incorrect) choice that Everyone Should Be A Computer Engineer, it’s not clear to me that bemoaning the existence of less-hackable platforms is in any way effective. Risking a second analogy, you are complaining that it’s hard to use hammers as screwdrivers, and really, those hammer manufacturers are holding us back by not putting a Phillips-head socket on the handle.

Regarding your third assumption, end-user electronic appliances have expected use cases. Presumably, both the people selling these devices and the people spending money on them think that these use cases are important. Making a platform “hackable” is not simply a matter of “don’t put DRM on it”. In many cases, what you call “hackable” I call “dangerous”, in the sense of a gun manufacturer who sells a handgun without a safety. If leaving a platform “open” or “hackable” means that developers should compromise the experience of 98% of their users for the benefit of the 2% of users who desperately want to use their hammers as screwdrivers, then I have to say that “open” sounds like perhaps one of the worst ideas I’ve heard of. If, on the other hand, you’re positing that we should refuse compromise, and perfectly meet the needs of 100% of everyone, and make an open platform that in no way compromises the user experience, then I look forward to eventually eating and/or cleaning my kitchen with your combination floor wax/dessert topping.

In summary: even if I accept the (flawed) premise that “careers in technology” are driven by, specifically, the ability to write software, you have in no way made the case that degrading people’s experiences with technology is the best way to get them to write more software. Optimizing technology for openness is almost never free, and if in making a product more hackable you end up interfering with the job the product was intended to do, you will, in the long run, do more harm than good.

Open platforms will always exist. This is a good thing. Equally important is that there will always be platforms whose primary concern is that of the experience of the user, and not the desires of the tinkerer. To elevate the tinkerer’s needs above the needs of those who need the product is, to be blunt, vaguely silly fetishism of technology as an end in itself.